“Dit” Names: And What If Your Surname Was Not the Original One?

Your surname is Languedoc, Sanschagrin, Laframboise or Saint-Jean? There is a good chance your ancestor’s name was completely different.

In Québec, a lot of people do not share their surname with their ancestor. They are rather known by their ancestor’s or one of his descendants’ “dit” name. Some pioneers’ surnames are actually not used anymore, having been replaced by the “dit” name associated therewith.

Much of these “dit” names were borne by militaries which then represent the third most important group of immigrants after the “engagés” and the King’s Daughters (or Filles du roi). In the army, each recruit was given a nickname by an officer. The soldiers who settled in Canada, a colony of New France at the time, were mostly from the Carignan-Salières Regiment which came in 1665, from the Compagnies franches de la Marine which were responsible for the colony’s protection as early as 1683, as well as infantry’s regiments who came to fight the British during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

For other families, “dit” names appeared later on in order to distinguish the different branches. Hence, descendants of the Lefebvre family of Baie-du-Febvre also bear the name Descôteaux, Labbé or Laciseraie. As for Paul Hus’ descendants, they had for a surname Beauchemin, Capistran, Cournoyer, Latraverse, Lemoine, Millet, Paul, Paulet, or even Paulhus. Be careful though, those with the “dit” name Lemoine are not all descendants of Paul Hus and those named Laframboise do not have all the same ancestor.

It is not easy to explain why a specific surname was given to an ancestor. In a few cases, the “dit” name comes from the pioneers’ wife maiden name, such as Bélisle dit Levasseur, Lemire dit Marsolet and Morand dit Grimard. In other cases, it is a contraction of the first name and of the surname: Castonguay (Gaston Guay), Louiseize (Louis Seize) or Paulhus (Paul Hus). For seigniorial families, the “dit” name represents the fief or the seigniory’s name: Boucher of Montbrun or Noël of Tilly.

The most common “dit” names often simply derive from the ancestor’s first name: Germain Gauthier dit St-Germain. The “dit” name may also reveal more or less precisely the origin of an ancestor like L’allemand (translation: from Germany), Langevin (from Anjou), Lyonnais (from Lyon) or Montauban. The “dit” name could tell you about your ancestor’s occupation like Lalancette, for a surgeon, or Lalime, for a founder or a locksmith. Wondering what your ancestor looked or was like? Legros (large), Latendresse (gentleness), Sansregret (no regret), Lespérance (hope). In the army, “dit” names were often a flower or plant name such as Latulipe (tulip), Larose (rose), Lafleur (flower), and so on.

To conclude, what about some funny nicknames from our military ancestors? Baisela (sorry, this one will be translated as “xxx”), Vivelamour (viva love), Prêtàboire (ready to drink), Vadeboncoeur (goes with a happy heart), Tranchemontagne (mountain splitter), Passepartout (goes anywhere or master key) or Laterreur (terror).

Jetté, René et Micheline Lécuyer. Répertoire des noms de famille du Québec des origines à 1825, éd. SGCF, Montréal, 201 p.

Jetté, René. Traité de généalogie, Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, Montréal, 1991. 716 p. (out-of-print)

French Canadian Surname Mutations in the United States


If you are from the United States and are looking for French Canadian ancestors, you know for sure how difficult it can be to find them.

You probably heard about “dit” names—my colleague Suzanne will discuss these in a future post—but besides that, something else can be fairly challenging, and that is the mutation of French Canadian surnames in the United States.

I have encountered many cases where people had no clue that a French Canadian was actually in their tree. Often barely two or three generations back, and they had no idea that this Jane Wood was in fact Geneviève Dubois. Or they were stunned to learn that Nelson Little went by the name of Narcisse Petit north of the border.

I am doing quite extensive research in Vermont records and I have come across some interesting surnames’ variations! If the literal translation from the French might appear easy to figure out—I cannot help thinking of Shortsleeve, for Courtemanche—some others are not that obvious. Just think of German: might be either for Lallemand or Saint-Germain.

Sometimes, I just need to say it out loud to tell what the French Canadian name might be. I am thinking of Browshaw, for Branchaud; Gorrow, for Gareau; Sears, for Cyr; or Tromblei, for Tremblay. In these cases, the surnames were not translated but rather anglicized. But when I read Fosha, I quickly thought of Foucher while it was for Forcier (which I ended up with after intensive work). And what about the Blanchettes who decided to use Blanchard instead?

Others may seem straightforward like Rock. Oh, yes, it must be for Laroche or Larocque! No, Desrochers or Durocher… wait, what about Lapierre? The same pattern occurs for the name Stone. You are typically up for many hours of research.

Some surname variations simply cannot be explained. How did Arpajou became Parish? And what about Daniels used for Beauchemin? Without the parish repertoires from Vermont, I would be at a loss!

Finally, my favourites are, and by far, John “French” and Martin “Frenchman”. Great idea, guys! Thanks for the help!

Are you sure, you do not have French Canadian ancestors? If you have hit a brick wall in the Northeastern States, or even in Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin or Michigan, there is a real possibility. As you can see, you need to think outside the box if you hope to find that needle in the haystack.

2017 FamilyRoots Seminar in Calgary, Alberta

The Alberta Family Histories Society is presenting FamilyRoots Seminar 2017 on Saturday, September 23rd, in Calgary. Program Sessions and Schedule here. To register, click here.

The Elusive Lady


While I was looking for one of my ancestors on the Web, I was in for a total surprise. I did manage to find the man but certainly not where I thought I would. I stumbled upon this history thesis about domestic violence in Montreal during the first half of the nineteenth century1.

Jean Detouin’s name was mentioned therein but not for the reason you are thinking: he was not a violent man but rather a victim as someone attempted to kill him and burn his house. He had resigned himself to make a complaint against… his own wife!

Marie Archange dite Julie Daigneau was born in Boucherville in 1797. On June 20, 1821, she married Jean Detouin, a carpenter who just immigrated from Belgium. At that time, Marie Archange was living in Montreal while her parents were living in Boucherville. Her older sister, Marie Josephe, also married in Montreal in 1818 with François George Lepailleur, a notary. It is a possibility that Archange was living with her sister at the time of her marriage, although it would have been for a short period since the Lepailleurs left for Châteauguay in 1820.

Seven months after her marriage, Archange gave birth to a girl, Marie Elmire. It was not unusual for the first child to be “premature”—Archange is certainly not the first woman to get married while being pregnant. Three other daughters were born two years apart from each other: Marie Archange dite Angèle, Henriette, and Caroline. The last one was born in June 1828, seven years after her parents’ marriage but passed away five days after the birth. Then, the next to youngest child dies in December 1829. Finally, Jean Detouin died in turn a victim of the cholera epidemic in 1832. The two eldest daughters are therefore left fatherless and went on to live with their uncle. And what about the mother?

Jean Detouin’s statement against his wife, dated May 5, 1831, is quite informative about the family’s life conditions as well as those of Montreal’s families from the same era:

“… about three years ago, Julie Daigneau, his wife, has left their bed and house and abandoned her children and started drinking. She’s a vagrant and a prostitute. She was out of jail last Tuesday and since then, has come several times to the deponent’s house, especially today, has disturbed the peace, assaulted him and threatened to hit him and has uttered multiple threats, including wanting to burn his house…” [translation from French]

Well, well, Archange, now a vagrant and known as Julie, is out of prison and left her house about three years before. I turned to the Montreal Prison registers and started looking as of the date of her last childbirth and there it was! Julie was first jailed in November 1828 for shoplifting. She faces the same charges in March 1829. The next occurrences will be about vagrancy or for disturbing the peace.

With more sleuthing, it is no surprise that Archange was in this situation. Angélique Catafard, her youngest’s godmother, was in prison too. She was arrested at the Champ-de-Mars, with other prostitutes. The policeman described them as vagrants and women of bad repute.

Archange dite Julie Daigneau will be serving no less than 28 prison terms where she will actually die on February 3, 1837. She left abundant traces of her existence in court records. On the one hand, if I had solely relied on civil records, I would have never found a death record for her. On the other hand, I would have never known about this family’s misery. Finally, in light of this portrait, it is legitimate to wonder if Jean Detouin is the father of Archange’s four daughters.

1 Pilarczyk, Ian C. Justice in the Premises: Family Violence and the Law in Montreal, 1825-1850.

A Visit to The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site


During summertime, I visited The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site of Canada – Parks Canada*. I have been curious to stop by, as there are some voyageurs in my family tree.

The tiny museum is a nice—and smart—30 to 40-minute break while on a bike trip along the Lachine Canal on a very hot day. An old warehouse built in 1803 by Alexander Gordon, a former employee of the North West Company, the museum building is the last remnant of the Fur Trade era which made Lachine the Voyageurs’ rendezvous in the spring.

Even though the exhibit is not mainly intended for children, I could see that those who attended really enjoyed the interactive visit. And the kid that I still am did as well! Maps, artefacts and documents are shown along with explanations about a voyageur’s life. The post that above all caught my eye was this one:

“Interested in hiring on?”

Here are the job requirements:

Physical Requirements:
Height: under 1 m 70 tall
Weight: less than 63 kilos
Sex: male
Shoulders: broad and strong
Legs: short

Essential Qualifications:
Great physical and mental stamina.
Able to tolerate mosquitoes.
Not easily bored.
Cheerful and fond of the simple life.

Working Conditions:
Paddle between 16 to 18 hours a day.
Regularly portage 2 or 3 40-kilo packs.
Haul canoes.
Repair damage to canoes.
Get soaked in cold water at every portage.
Sleep five or six hours a night on the ground.
Sing to help maintain the paddling rhythm of anywhere from 40 to 60 strokes a minute.

Compensation from the Company:
Wages: less than $100 a year.
Clothing: pants, shirt, handkerchief, mitashes (leggings) and blanket.
Fire bags: pipe, tobacco and knife.
Food: two daily rations of a mixture of peas, beans or corn and salt pork cooked on a thick mush. Everyone eats from the same pot.
“Régale”: an occasional glass of rum.

Well, that lifestyle wasn’t for the faint-hearted I guess! By the way, I can’t help but wonder if otherwise interesting applicants would be turned down due to their off-key singing.

If you have read engagement contracts signed before a Notary Public, you may thus be familiar with these terms:

Bowman: he watches for shallows and rocks.
After man or steersman: he steers the canoe.
Middlemen: he is one of the paddlers’ crew.

Some passengers came along as well, either bourgeois or clerks of the Fur Trading Company. In all, about 10 to 12 people were aboard the canoe.

But why using these small boats to engage in such an adventurous journey? For canoes were the only mean to bypass the Sault-Saint-Louis rapids. Each canoe was transporting four 90-pound ballots containing merchandise that was exchanged for furs with Amerindians. Voyageurs were leaving Lachine, on Lake St. Louis’ shores, to paddle to Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ontario), which was the first stop before going further in Fur Country.

Any voyageurs in your own family tree? You may consult this database here from La Société historique de Saint-Boniface.

The museum is open from mid-June to Labor Day weekend.

* To celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, Parks Canada is offering free admission to all Parks Canada locations in 2017.

Two Montreal Museums Feature Expo 67’s Exhibitions

Have been too busy to reminisce on 1967’s Summer of Love? Two museums in Montreal are featuring exhibitions on the city’s famous Expo 67.

Until October 1, McCord Museum is presenting Fashioning Expo 67 and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s In Search of Expo 67 consists of 19 works by contemporary Quebec and Canadian artists.

Summer is not over yet!

GenSpotters’ Research Tip: Researching Your Italian Ancestor’s Place of Origin


Our main goal when starting in genealogy is to seek the first immigrant who bears our surname. Once the task has been achieved for the paternal ancestor, we go through the same process for the maternal line. For my mother’s family, we were able to identify the first Italian immigrant, but as his birthplace was unknown to us, it was impossible to go any further.

Nonetheless, even though an ancestor’s place of origin was not relayed from one generation to another, that doesn’t mean we have hit a brick wall. In Québec, the first thing that comes to mind is to consult parish registers—place of origin is often referred to in the marriage record. Still, said place could be kind of vague, such as a diocese, a province, or a region.

Consulting censuses might prove relevant in investigating our ancestor’s place of origin as the country of origin is usually indicated therein. Moreover, in the 1861 Canadian Census, birthplaces are mentioned. Of course, in order to be listed, your ancestor has to be already in Canada before that year. In some censuses, the immigration year is provided and this information is noteworthy.

A valuable source to locate your ancestor’s place of origin has to be passengers’ lists. Assuming that your ancestor left his country around 1900, you are in for finding some priceless information about him, including the next-of-kin in country of origin, their village or town of origin, as well as their final destination. Several immigrants came to Canada via the United States. Passengers’ lists would then report that your ancestor was in transit. Finally, more detailed information might have been given by your ancestor to the customs officer at the border.

Keep in mind to take note of every pertinent information and to record same in table form, transcribing the name of the place of origin (exactly as spelled out in the document), the document type, as well as the source consulted.

You have recorded everything and as a result a place name appears in almost all documents you have perused. You think that you finally hold the key to go further on your family tree? Maybe not. On the one hand, if your ancestor has given his province’s capital, you will need to take your research to the next level; on the other hand, if you have your ancestor’s village of origin, you may turn to the Civil State registers—being able to read Italian will help!

From the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick: New Marriage Records on Website

Any ancestors in New Brunswick? The Provincial Archives of New Brunswick’s Website just added a surrogate for pre-Vital Statistics marriages (1798-1887) for the county of Sunbury. Here is the link to the database:

County Council Marriage Records

Good luck!

Strolling Through Quebec’s Cemeteries

I love cemeteries. Is there a genealogist out there who doesn’t?

I remember, ages ago, long before I was doing genealogy, whenever we passed a cemetery while driving around, my brother-in-law would tease me and say: Oh! look, a cemetery for Diane!

So it will not come as a surprise to you if I tell here that I most appreciate websites dedicated to cemeteries for genealogists. There is one though, in my opinion, that really stands out as it has much more to offer than burial listings and rather contains many details about the cemetery itself.

I find it very moving to walk through a cemetery, but before I shed a tear, I want to make sure I am in the right place.

For cemeteries located in the province of Quebec, the Website of the Fédération Écomusée de l’Au-Delà (available in English), created by Daniel Labelle, provides information such as the address or location; the foundation and closing date (if any); the parish foundation date; the latitude and longitude (Google Map is shown); its chronology (first, second, third cemetery, etc.); and sources.

Let me give you an example: Lachenaie, where many of my ancestors originate from. When I type the name of the town, I get three results: the old cemetery, the current one and the church crypt.

First, let’s take a look at the results obtained for the old cemetery. I am learning that: it was the parish’s first cemetery; it was located on the seignorial domain; it was founded in 1679 (1683 for the parish); and it was closed around 1730. Moreover, the notes mention that it was near a chapel. When I click on the Google Map and choose the Satellite view, I can see precisely where it was situated.

Now, let’s turn to the results pertaining to the second cemetery (actually still there today) which dates back to about 1730. They provide, besides the above-mentioned information, its position versus the church, the spatial arrangement, the type of cross, the perimeter and other various data.

So, thanks to this unique tool, whenever I visit Lachenaie cemetery, I know for a fact that I am standing exactly where were buried my ancestors who died after 1730, even though there are no remains of ancient headstones.

If you are planning to come to Quebec to walk in your ancestors’ footsteps, do not forget to check out this website before you start your journey.

Paul à Montréal: Interactive Walk to Discover Montreal’s History

To celebrate Montreal’s 375th anniversary, a special event featuring twelve giant panels from the comic’s world of Paul by Michel Rabagliati will help you discover the history of Montreal in the neighbourhood of Plateau Mont-Royal. This interactive walk starts at Métro Laurier and ends at beautiful Parc Lafontaine. All the details here.

To discover the world of Michel Rabagliati’s Paul, here is a link to Les Éditions de La Pastèque.

This event ends December 10, 2017.